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The social contract theory is one of the most influential theories on how the society is formed and operated. The theory addresses the moral and political obligations that individuals who make up a society have as a result of their interactions with each other. Two of the best known proponents of the social contract theory are John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and they have written documents advocating for the theory.
Locke’s “Second Treaties on Government” and Rousseau’s “The Social Contract” present varying arguments in defense of liberty. While both thinkers address the issue of social contract as the basis of society, they place emphasis on different players in the contract. For Locke, the agreement between the rulers and the ruled is of most importance and it forms the basis of the contract (Cahn, 2011).
On the other hand, Rousseau stipulates that the social contract is essentially between all society members (Simpson, 2006). The paper will set out to articulate the arguments made in defense of liberty by Locke and Rousseau respectively so as to demonstrate that Locke’s position is more persuasive and profound.
Locke’s Second Treaties on Government
John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government was prompted by the overthrow of King James II by a group of Parliamentarians in 1688. Locke set out to explain why the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which had led to the overthrow of the king was justified (Cahn, 2011).
In his document, Locke set out to define the legitimate role of civil government and expound on the conditions under which the state powers are needed. In Locke’s era, the people had been led to believe that the monarchy was ordained by God to rule over the masses. This belief was responsible for the absolute power which the monarch enjoyed over the commoners. Locke argued that people were free by nature and therefore not naturally subject to any power. This argument formed the basis of Locke’s understanding of liberty.
Locke was a great advocate of government and his document was actually meant to encourage good governance. He was only opposed to tyranny since, in his opinion, the government existed to ensure the good of mankind. He therefore advocated for the right of the people to elect a just government through voting (Cahn, 2011).
Locke’s also argued that the people should be the judge of when a government is abusing its power. Locke’s document was able to abate the fear of unchecked tyranny by the English Parliamentarians and the king’s fear of self-willed and lawless rebellion (Forster, 2011).
Locke theorized that the moral rules that the society live by should be regarded as a system of agreements- that is, a social contract. Before such a contract was established, human beings lived in a state of nature where no formal society existed. In this natural state, each person was his own ruler and enjoyed life and liberty independent of others.
However, interactions with others resulted in frequent disputes and quarrels which escalated into violent conflict therefore making it harder for everyone to secure the enjoyment of life and liberty that the state of nature afforded. To deal with this, people resorted in joining together and coming up with a system of agreements which protect their rights and therefore ensure mutual benefits. This social contract which includes a system of moral rules against murder, theft, slavery, and other ills forms the basis of the society.
Forster (2011) notes that the primary function of the social contract is to protect the basic natural rights of life, liberty, and property. At this point in time, the agreement lacks a means to enforce it which renders it ineffective. An entity must therefore be created and bestowed with the power to enforce the social contract (Locke, 1982). People therefore agree to create a government which has the power to enforce the mutually agreed upon rules and laws in an unbiased manner.
According to Locke, liberty means “not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man” (Replogle, 1989, p.167). He insisted that freedom is an innate attribute that belongs to every human being by virtue of his humanity and emphatically stated that “freedom from absolute, arbitrary power, is so necessary to, and closely conjoined with a man’s preservation, that he cannot part with it” (Replogle, 1989, p.167). In his opinion, the government existed to protect the lives of its citizens, their property and liberty.
Therefore, since the government’s core obligations were to its citizenry, the government leaders must be elected by the society members. Locke explains that the government gets its powers from the consent of the governed. The citizens voluntarily surrender themselves to the will of the government which gives the state its legitimacy (Evers, 1977).
Furthermore, the society had the prerogative to throw out the current government and reinstate a new one when necessary. Locke argues that the legitimacy of contracts made under duress should not be recognized. This means that people are not supposed to be forced through threats to recognize authority.
Locke also addressed the issue of government abuse on the society. He stated that if the state engages in practices such as depriving people of their property or enslaving them, then the government will have lost its powers. By making this assertion, Locke justified some forms of rebellion and revolution against the state. Locke’s view implied that the government of England in the 1680s was a tyranny and it was the duty of the society to rebel against it (Forster, 2011).
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There was an argument against this view by Locke since it was assumed that the whole point of having a government in the first place was to quell rebellion. If people had the right to overthrow the government when they did not like its methods, then the government would lose its power to act as the final authority.
A right to rebellion would therefore reduce the state to anarchy. Locke countered this argument by declaring that rebellion and revolutions are only precipitated by great atrocities by the people in power (Walsh, 2009). Furthermore, he pointed out that the society does not like to change its old habits and it will therefore not be inclined to resort to revolutions and overthrows unless great abuses of power occur.
Rousseau’s The Social Contract
Rousseau’s Social Contract was a theory of justice and obligation and in argued that a good political society could only be founded on an agreement among its citizens (Simpson, 2006). In his argument, Rousseau suggested that humans are by nature free and in their natural state, they are free beings.
In this state of nature, there is no strive among men since each man lives independently and there is no concept of ownership and as such, vices such as theft cannot occur. Rousseau stresses on the original equality of all men since in the natural state, no one has more power or influence on the others (Sorenson, 2005).
However, the advancement of human civilization resulted in the loss of this freedom since men had to become subservience to others. Rousseau notes that because a return to the state of nature where all men are free is not possible, politics can be used as the tool through which freedom can be restored to man (Lermack, 2007).
The question that Rousseau addresses is whether the civil state can be constituted in such a manner that its members do not lose their freedom which is deemed to be their right by birth. Social contract affords people a chance to regain their natural freedom without having to go back to the natural state.
According to Rousseau, individuals in their natural state were creatures that were driven by instinct and an appetitive nature with no moral standing. The freedom they had in this nature was therefore inferior since they were not ruled by reason but rather by desire. By moving from the state of nature to the civil state, men could substitute their instinct driven actions with actions that had a moral quality (Sorenson, 2005).
He argues that while man in the civil state is deprived of many of the advantages that he enjoyed from nature, he acquires some significant advantages. For one, his thinking capacity is exercised and developed and his ideas are expanded which makes development and further civilization possible.
Rousseau declares that as a result of social contract, the individual is transformed from “a stupid and ignorant animal into an intelligent being and a man” (Rousseau, 1998, p.12). Rousseau calls for the complete involvement by all individuals in the social contract. For him, the people who insist on maintaining their personal freedom are ignorant and they should be regarded as madmen.
The problem in Rousseau’s estimate is how man can exist in a community for his own good while at the same time be accountable only to himself and therefore remain as free as he was before he joined the community. The question is articulated as “how can I live in a society and be subject to all the laws current in that society, and yet be as free as I was in the state of nature” (Rousseau, 1998, p.10).
Rousseau reveals that this problem can be overcome by individuals coming together and becoming a people. As a people, their individual interests and wills are overridden by the collective interests. Rousseau argued that the needs of the individual and those of the society coincided and as such, individual wants and state wants could be identical. As such, there would be no loss of freedom even when individuals gave up their rights to the state (Lermack, 2007).
Rousseau proposed a number of ways through which this desirable social cohesion could be achieved. To begin with, he saw religion as a potent tool in that it could act as a censor to “uphold morality” and therefore bring about social cohesion.
The harmony of the society could also be achieved through the suppression of discursive politics which would only result in dissent and uproar. Rousseau asserted that all men had a right to liberty and a renunciation of liberty was incompatible with man’s nature (Replogle, 1989). Liberty was an attribute so deeply ingrained in human beings that no social state of affairs that deprives people of their liberty is a possible object of unanimous agreement among them.
Rousseau suggests that personal freedom should be forfeited for the sake of social freedom which comes from obedience to the general will. In return to relinquishing their individual interests for the general will, the state is required to demonstrate a commitment to the good of the individuals who have created and empowered it.
Rousseau’s argument that every man is free when they give up their individual wills for the sake of the general will is not convincing. Replogle (1989) demonstrates that in Rousseau’s case, the government and laws provide for the safety of its members and in return take away the people’s original liberty therefore making them “happy slaves”.
The More Persuasive Position
Both Locke and Rousseau defended liberty by treating it as a good that no party to the social contract could renounce (Walsh, 2009). The two thinkers invoked the idea or a unanimous agreement among persons on terms of social cooperation to explain the higher-order value of liberty (Replogle, 1989). However, the arguments presented in defense of liberty differed in some aspects and in my opinion, Locke presented the stronger argument.
Locke’s proposal that the ruler is lent power by the subjects on condition that he uses the power to advance the good of the community is very persuasive. This proposal forms the basis of the election system where the people can dispose off a government that is not fulfilling its mandate.
According to Locke, people have a right to judge whether the government has acted in line with their trust. The members of the community must continue to place their trust in the constitution if it is to have any legitimacy. When this trust is withdrawn by a majority of the community, then the constitution becomes illegitimate.
Both thinkers agree that the social contract is supposed to serve the best interest of the community. If the community deems this contract as obsolete, they have the legitimate right to break the contract and therefore dissolve the society as it exists. However, Rousseau declares that the general will is always right and in the best interest of the society and it should therefore be given preference. This assertion is not always right since the general will of the masses may be detrimental to the well being of the society.
Evers (1977) notes that both Locke and Rousseau do not believe that a person can willingly place himself under enslavement or under the arbitrary power of another. This is the basis of our modern democracy where each person is free from enslavement and has a right to vote for the best government. Locke has great faith in mankind whom he sees as being guided by “rational self-interest” and therefore predisposed to engage in activities which advance their self interest.
While Locke argues that the move to civil society is out of necessity and not necessary because civil society is better than the natural state, Rousseau argues that civil society changes our character for the better and as such, obeying the general will is essentially obeying the worthy and worthwhile side of our nature. I find Locke’s position more persuasive since there are many instances where the general will leads to war and atrocities against others; a scenario that might not have existed if each individual acted on his own will.
Self interest by both the subjects and the rulers plays a major role in liberty. Locke maintains that the self-interest of the subjects will ensure that they do not engage in random rebellion and they will only resort to this when the government acts in a manner that is seriously abusive and dangerous to them.
On the other hand, the self-interest of the rulers will ensure that they avoid behavior that may result in a rebellion which could deprive them of their power. Rousseau proposes that people must alienate their personal freedom in order to enjoy the collective freedom. Locke does not call for this and in his argument; one need not alienate their personal freedom in order to enjoy the freedom that the governing body affords the community.
In Rousseau’s argument, the law giver is expected to be charismatic and possessing the ability to instill civic virtue in the populace. Evers (1977) reveals that Rousseau hopes that the populace will be reeducated by this charismatic law-giver concerning the laws decided on and this will result in a united people. This idealistic environment does not exist since most rulers would only advance their personal interest. In addition to this, people are likely to resent the reeducation efforts.
Rousseau’s argument that the laws enacted via popular sovereignty are just and equal is also not convincing since the laws at times go against the will of the minority.
Rousseau suggests that the people who do not agree with the popular desire should be re-educated. Such an approach might lead to the ill treatment of people whom the government sees as dissents. Locke’s document introduced a concept of social contract where the non-violent overthrow of power could occur if the community was dissatisfied with the government (Locke, 1982).
The social contract as advocated by Locke is an exchange of promises between the ruler and the people and from this; a trust is established with the people agreeing to be governed as long as the ruler maintains their trust. The fundamental law of nature is clear to the people and they will therefore be able to know when their ruler has badly violated them and therefore rebel against him.
This paper set out to argue that Locke’s argument in defense of liberty was more persuasive than that of Rousseau. To do this, the paper begun with a detailed discussion of the arguments put forward by both thinkers. While the ideas expressed by Rousseau and Locke’s theories on Social Contract and the natural freedoms of all men are obviously too idealistic, they form the basis of many governments today.
Locke’s arguments in favor of liberty and the right of society to revolt against tyranny had and continue to have great influence on democratic revolutions. Rousseau’s proposal that good a political society is founded on agreements by citizens has also been influential in the formation of many constitutions and government institutes.
The paper has noted that while both thinkers agreed that full involvement of the people was required for the social contract to insure the rights of all, they had different views as to how this involvement would be brought about. It has been demonstrated that Locke’s view is more persuasive and his ideas continue to be influential in many present day democracies.
Cahn, S. (2011). Political Philosophy, The Essential Texts. (2nd Ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
Evers, W. M. (1977). Social contract: A critique. Journal of Libertarian Studies, 1(1), 185-194.
Forster, G. (2011). Starting With Locke. Boston: Continuum International Publishing Group.
Lermack, P. (2007). The constitution is the social contract so it must be a contract right? A critique of originalism as interpretive method. William Mitchell Law Review, 33(4), 1403-1445.
Locke, J. (1982). Second Treatise of Government. Illinois: Crofts Classics, 1982.
Replogle, R. (1989). Recovering the Social Contract. Washington: Rowman & Littlefield.
Rousseau, J. (1998). The Social Contract: Or, Principles of Political Right. NY: Wordsworth Editions.
Simpson, M. (2006). A Paradox of Sovereignty in Rousseau’s Social Contract. London: Sage Publications.
Sorenson, L. (2005). Rousseau’s Fulfillment of the Natural Public Law Tradition and His Contribution to its Demise. The European Legacy, 10 (5), 439–454,
Walsh, M. (2009). Locke and Rousseau: Government Operations in Civil Society. Mapping Politics, 1(1), 60-67.